Teams Use 3D Printing to Address Geothermal’s Toughest Manufacturing Challenges

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the finalists of the American-Made Geothermal Manufacturing Prize, a competition designed to advance geothermal energy technology using 3D printing. Harsh geothermal environmental conditions—high temperatures, high rock strength, and corrosive working fluids—require specialized tools and materials with elevated manufacturing costs. Manufacturing innovations can address some of these fundamental challenges and help lower costs, enhance production, and increase the reliability of geothermal energy, bringing affordable power to more Americans.

“This prize will incentivize entrepreneurs and innovators to develop more cost-effective methods and materials to overcome the challenges of working in a geothermal environment,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Kelly Speakes-Backman, who announced the finalists at a live event. “Our focus on rapid prototype development will accelerate geothermal innovation, resulting in more geothermal power generation across the nation, and a faster transition to a clean energy economy.” 

The prize engages America’s energy incubators, investors, universities, national laboratories, and others to harness the rapid advances in 3D printing for tool design, fabrication, and functionality. Advancements in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, can be leveraged to support the manufacturing needs of the geothermal industry, helping to improve performance and reduce costs and production time. Through its support of accelerated prototype development, the prize incentivizes innovators to discover new advanced manufacturing solutions.

During the course of the prize, teams participate in a series of progressive competitions for a total purse of $4.65 million in cash and other incentives. As part of Make!, the third of four contests, semifinalists fabricated prototypes and presented them to a panel of expert reviewers. This contest follows the Ready! and Set! contests, where teams developed impactful ideas and began demonstrating their design’s promise. Five teams have been selected to move on to the Geo! contest, the prize’s final stage. The finalists are:

  • Team Baker Hughes (Houston, TX): Baker Hughes is developing high expansion packers with additively manufactured backup rings. With an inventive, interlocking petal design, these backup rings will improve the zonal isolation in both open and cased hole geothermal wells. 
  • Team Downhole Emerging Technologies (Houston, TX): Downhole Emerging Technologies is developing an innovative alternative to traditional packer systems. The retrievable, all-metal packer system is designed specifically for high temperatures, extreme pressures, and corrosion experienced in geothermal wells. 
  • Team PLUGS (Morgantown, WV): PLUGS is developing a sparger system that uses high-pressure air for artificial lift, which replaces the traditional electric pumps. The technology addresses maintenance issues experienced by existing pump technologies due to harsh geothermal conditions.
  • The Bit Guys (Morgantown, WV): The Bit Guys is developing an air-hammer drill bit with carbide cutter retention technology that tackles drilling-related challenges in geothermal environments. Basement rock is notoriously difficult to drill through and this bit technology addresses both the strength and temperature requirements for geothermal drilling.
  • Team Ultra-High Temperature Logging Tool (Houston, TX): Ultra-High Temperature Logging Tool is developing a technology that uses a labyrinthian heat sink to reduce thermal emissivity and increase the exposure time of temperature sensitive electronic components. The technology solves limitations around maximum temperature rating and lifetime of electronics in logging and measurement tools.

As part of the Geo! contest, these finalists will manufacture an advanced functional prototype and field test it using partner facilities. Teams will receive feedback from experts to help them refine their prototypes. Ultimately, the work conducted by these teams will result in innovative uses of 3D printing to discover new advanced manufacturing solutions for the geothermal industry.

The American-Made Geothermal Manufacturing Prize launched in January 2020 and is supported by the Geothermal Technologies Office and the Advanced Manufacturing Office in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.